By the time you read this you will have probably heard about the massive changes that we are about to undergo in our Health Plan.
Iím sure your reaction was a negative one to say the least. Guess what? No one involved in making those changes would disagree with you. As a matter of fact, there is no joy these days in those quarters.
Iím going to try and in clear terms lay out why this is happening to us. Yes, I use the word ďusĒ since even as President, anything you suffer in this area I, and all the union trustees must cope with as well. The Actor Trustees are just like you, and if the eligibility increases, or the benefits decrease, we get slammed with the same crap that you do.
The changes that you see going into effect on October 1st were initially contemplated a year ago, but postponed by trustees who were trying to be compassionate to the membership while fulfilling their fiscal obligation to keep the Health Fund sound. Sadly, it has become impossible any longer to have these two things co-exist.
First of all, letís stop blaming Equity. Equity, the union, does not control the Health and Pension Plans, the Trustees do. The Council of Equity appoints our own trustees, but there is also an equal number appointed by the employers. Any decision made on changes is made by this combined group. But, letís not be so quick to throw any blame their way either. Let me explain why.
In the last 18 months, the Health Plan Trustees of SAG, AFTRA, IATSE, SSDC, WGA, DGA and others in the industry have had to make staggering modifications in their memberís insurance plans. SAG and AFTRA have raised their earnings eligibility, which is based on dollars earned, by more than 100% and added a monthly premium that the member must pay in order to obtain insurance. The member in SAG must pay a $600 annual premium; in AFTRA that premium is $1,000. (And remember, the actor must pay this money after they already qualify for AFTRA or SAGís plan by their employment. If it is not paid, then insurance is not obtained).
Yes, there was a change in our eligibility rules that went into effect July 1st. So then, why are even larger modifications going into effect on October 1st? I mean, this just isnít giving the changes implemented on July 1st a chance to work, right? Wrong. Why? Because what the trustees projected and hoped would be contained losses in the Health Fund have now, due to circumstances completely out of their control, tragically escalated, and the result is an enormous hemorrhaging of funds. The changes that you see going into effect on October 1st were initially contemplated a year ago, but postponed by trustees who were trying to be compassionate to the membership while fulfilling their fiscal obligation to keep the Health Fund sound. Sadly, it has become impossible any longer to have these two things co-exist.
Why is this happening? Well, itís simple but ugly arithmetic. I will take just our health plan for explanation, although the scenario would be pretty much the same in all of our sister unions.
Be silent no more. There is a national Presidential election next year. Many seats in Congress are up this year. Whoever you may support, get promises from your candidates to remedy this chaos, and hold them to it. See the bigger picture and act now. You truly have the chance to make a difference.
In just the last year, our Blue Cross premium, the amount which we must pay for our ďgroupĒ to be covered for hospitalization, has risen an obscene 46.2%! Our rates for doctors and medical procedures increased 21%, just in one year. Prescription drug costs also have slammed home with a 16% increase in one year. Medical inflation in this country is sometimes ten times the average of regular consumer inflation. Trust me, we as actors have not been singled out in this crisis. Health plan changes are hammering almost every wage earner in this country, and the number of uninsured Americans is soaring. More about that in a moment.
In June 2001, our health plan had a surplus of $78 million. This was our savings account. Two years later, this reserve has been depleted to under $50 million. Our health plan costs well over $50 million annually, and experts advise that there should always be a one year surplus in a health plan since drastic changes in the economy, as we have been experiencing, can bankrupt it within months. Weíre not broke yet, but weíre already under that safe level, and it is estimated that if changes are not made, Plan losses could exceed well over $16 million in the next year.
How did this happen? Bad management? Far from it. The planís expenses (your hospital, medical, drug and dental bills) have sky-rocketed and simply exceeded income, i.e., the money coming in to pay for your insurance coverage, either contributed by your employer, or if on self-pay, by you, yourself.
There are several ways to try and remedy the situation.
The union must negotiate higher employer contributions on your behalf. (When you first elected me to Council, that amount needed was $16 weekly. It is now in excess of $150, per week, per actor.) Of course Equity will fight for this, but it can only happen at the end of our three or four year contracts, so it is difficult to get any immediate kind of financial relief.
We can change insurance carriers, which is a huge savings. This will also take place as of October 1st.
The other alternative sadly must be to cut benefits (yes, like the Dental Plan, and let me tell that loss is very tough on most of us), and to increase eligibility rules, and the worst of all, to decrease length of coverage in some cases.
If all of the above changes are not instituted, the Health Fund will go bankrupt, most probably within 24 months, and no one, not you, nor I, will have any health insurance.
You will find these changes explained in the current issue of ďNow Playing,Ē the Pension and Health newsletter, and elsewhere in this issue of Equity News.
A few years ago, I was covered by health plans in Equity, AFTRA and SAG. I used to joke that they almost paid me to be sick. Well, the days of laughter are over. Due to the increases in their eligibility rules I have lost my AFTRA insurance, and for the first time in 20 years, lost my SAG insurance as well. I am in the same predicament as all of you. So is every Actor who is an Equity trustee of the health plan. Please note for the record, that no Actor trustee of the Pension and Health plan, or Officer or Councillor of Equity is paid a dime for their work on your behalf, so when we lose that precious insurance we are just as screwed as every member of this union, and, for that matter, every citizen of this country who is grappling with this crisis.
And that leads me to my final point: If you want to vent your frustration and anger, which is real and justified, sit down and write to your state and federal government leaders and let them know of your dissatisfaction with the fact that there is no national health insurance plan. Whatever your political leanings, or what you may have thought of the previous administration in Washington, it must be finally acknowledged that their efforts to institute a universal health plan in this country, which failed, were at the very least, a harbinger of what must be done. But now, without any kind of federal government intervention, the members of my union and every union in this country are losing their health insurance coverage in horrific numbers. Iím angry and I feel abandoned. Iím sorry, but I hope you do as well, for hopefully this anger can be focused in a constructive way.
Equity will continue to lobby, as we just have successfully done in New York State, to impress on the government that they are sitting on a time bomb while their constituents suffer in some kind of silent hell, many of them going deep into debt just to have access to affordable health care, or in the case of some 45 million Americans, no health insurance at all.
Be silent no more. There is a national Presidential election next year. Many seats in Congress are up this year.
Whoever you may support, get promises from your candidates to remedy this chaos, and hold them to it. See the bigger picture and act now. You truly have the chance to make a difference.
But donít complain about your union. If youíre that mad, you can vote me out of office. But Iíll tell you, that isnít going to help on this issue. Iím not trying to whitewash your union of any responsibility in all of this. I donít have to, for Equity or your appointed trustees are simply not to blame. There are no fat cat union bosses trying to screw the little guy, for every one of us that you have elected is, in the end, just a little guy, too.
I pray that we will all make it through this crisis and someday look back and shake our heads in disbelief that we in this great nation ever had to suffer through it in the first place.
As always, I welcome your thoughts or ideas on this or any subject. You can write me at President@actorsequity.org or at the Actorsí Equity National Office, 165 West 46th Street, New York, NY. 10036.